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Thousands "Like" gangs like the Latin Kings on Facebook as cops see rising use of social networking sites by gang members.

Cops patrol social networking sites for gang activity

by Gina Harkins
March 02, 2011

Search for the Latin Kings on Facebook and you’ll find thousands who “Like” the pages that come up in the results.

Gang members are among the more than 500 million active Facebook users giving law enforcement agencies new challenges to deal with – and new opportunities. YouTube, MySpace and Twitter are other examples of social networking sites being used by gangs, experts said.

Officers with the Skokie Police Department recently completed training on this issue. Sgt. Robert Libit of the department said gangs are using social networking sites for a lot of the same reasons anyone else does.

“The biggest thing is communication, because it’s so easy to get to,” Libit said. “People can use it from their cell phones. They can post stuff and email stuff. The difference is they can also use it to set up narcotics transactions.” And they do, Libit said, which sometimes leads to an arrest.

Court cases across the country have been built against gang members based in part on evidence collected through social media sites.

Special Agent Witt with Lake County Metropolitan Enforcement Group, who asked not to have his first name published, said gang members are using the websites to share information with each other, recruit new members or show their status.

“On YouTube, you can type ‘Latin Kings’ in and they’ll have rap or gangster music playing and will show pictures of themselves flashing their gang signs or throwing up money,” Witt said.

“It’s about recruitment or status. They want to show how powerful they are, how much money they have and what they’re capable of doing.”

And the gang users are as diverse as any social networking users.

“They can be junior high aged, 10 to 12, all the way up to adults,” Witt said.

Investigator Brian Peters with the Round Lake Beach Police Department said they regularly monitor these sites for gang-related content.

“We do actively investigate these websites for intelligence,” Peters said. “We also solve cases with the information they post.”

Gang members using these sites not only benefit law enforcement investigating the use, but communities as well, Witt said.

“Getting people identified and seeing what types of gangs are in our communities are some of the benefits,” Witt said. “Then we can make law enforcement agencies aware of what’s out there.”

While social network use by gang members does provide law enforcement with some access to information, Libit said police departments still rely on members of the community for information on gang-related activity.

”We can’t be everywhere, and the Internet is a big place,” Libit said. “We count on the community being our eyes and ears, so if they’re seeing some info that they feel would be advantageous to the police department, they should report it.”

Witt said there can be some fear about community members reporting gang activity, but Libit said anonymous tips from residents are the lifeblood of their investigations.

While some gangs have open Facebook sites that seem aimed at recruitment and publicity, others use Facebook security settings to limit full access to gang members.

“We can run into some problems with security settings, but there are ways around that,” Libit said.

Libit and Peters both said that Facebook and other networking sites are cooperative when records have been subpoenaed for the courts. But the websites almost always require that they be subpoenaed, the officers said.

Chicago police did not respond to requests for comment about gang use of social networking sites.